This week we will look at “standard” CBT approaches to anger management problems. In the next blog, we’ll add to this by talking about the mindfulness-based/Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach also.
People who have difficulty in managing anger can damage relationships with loved ones, lose friendships and career opportunities, even if they “only” speak angrily or act passive-aggressively rather than do physical harm to others, themselves, or property.
As we all know, it is difficult when you are angry to take time to examine thoughts. All of us have had the experience of saying something that was ill-advised or unkind, developing an irritable mood, or withdrawing when someone “makes” us angry. The first step in dealing with anger is to take some “space” so we can think before speaking or acting.
The proverbial “deep breath” (using “belly breathing”, rather than breathing lightly into the chest) can really help in the initial stages. It’s a direct way to “tell” your body it’s OK to be calm. Even sitting down rather than standing can make a distance. (Picture someone yelling sitting down. – It doesn’t fit.) Sometimes it’s also necessary to leave the situation for a while in order to calm down.
Next, it’s important to consider the kind of thoughts that provoke anger:
1. Excessive expectations of others
If someone is driving too slowly in the fast lane, I might be late, or to have to change lanes a couples of times. Do I have believe that other people “should” never do this? What about people who dress in a way I consider inappropriate or speak to a third party in a way I consider disrespectful? If a person does not measure up to my personal standards, is it really my business? Is it advisable or necessary for me to “correct” the person’s behavior or ruminate about how “bad” the person is?
When someone believes that it is his or her job to “fix” other people by pointing out their errors, it is a setup for becoming and staying angry. Of course, we should all speak up about certain situations, but some angry people try and “fix” everything. Since we have no control over many annoying situations, getting angry about them achieves nothing and results in chronic irritability.
Is the person who “made” me angry doing something “on purpose” to make me mad? Many times we think other people are focused on us when they are absorbed in their own concerns. Their actions relate to their own lives, not ours. Angry people often have “cognitive impulsivity”. This means that they jump to conclusions about the meaning of situations without taking time to think it through. This misinterpretation can lead to angry behavior.
Unfortunately, excessive personalizing really can encourage other people to try to provoke you. Kids and teens in particular will try to “set off” a kid who “loses it” too easily, and some adults will do it too. I tell clients that being too easily provoked is like having a target on your chest. You are giving up your own power over your life and giving it to others to hurt you. If you can learn to be less reactive, the behavior will stop. If you are a parent, it’s particularly important to learn not to overreact. If you can be provoked too easily, your child will not only be afraid of you but also lose respect for you.
So far we’ve been thinking about the way thoughts affect angry feelings and behavior in “real time”. Just learning to take some time to think things through can really help people who get angry fast but can calm down quickly. Let’s consider now people who are chronically angry, hold grudges, and can’t let the anger go.
This problem is caused by “rumination” – going over and over the situation in your mind after it’s over. This is not the same as problem-solving. If “venting” to other people or thinking the situation through repeatedly is helping you work out potential action plans, it’s useful. If you get stuck in ruminating and complaining about how bad other people are, you’re likely to hold grudges, “freeze” your loved ones and friends out of your life, and damage your physical health. This chronic hostility makes it difficult for you to acknowledge any share in responsibility. You may become “passive aggressive”, denying that you are angry but doing things to “get back at’ other people.
Angry rumination like this is actually a way of avoiding having to “sit with” the physical and mental discomfort of really feeling the anger. You escape into self-righteous and possibly vengeful brooding instead.
Mindfulness-based approaches are most useful in treating this problem. They also help anyone who is faced with an unchangeable, painful situation, which can lead to chronic anger and depression. We will talk about them in the next blog.